Inspired by YouTube clips of his dad’s legendary career at the University of Alabama, A.J. McCarron’s six-year-old son Tripp asked A.J., then 31-years-old and nursing a torn ACL suffered during the 2021 NFL preseason, to keep playing football so he could watch the games in person.

McCarron needed a place to play.

After a failed launch in 2001 and ill-fated season cut short by COVID in 2020, the XFL needed a household name with a compelling storyline.

St. Louisans needed a reason to rally to the Dome beyond jeering the reviled exile in Inglewood.

By every measure, last spring was a win-win-win.

The McCarron family was a heartwarming presence on the sidelines, in the stands, and on national television as A.J. delivered a league-leading 24 touchdowns and led the Battlehawks to a 7-3 record in front of hectic crowds in downtown STL.  He was back in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals in the fall.

Two tombstones were added to spring football’s graveyard with the creation of the United Football League (UFL) on New Years Eve. Here lies: NFL Europe (1995-2007), USFL (1983-1985, 2022-2023), XFL (2001, 2020, 2023).

UFL (2024 -?). Hope springs eternal.

FEBRUARY 23, 2023: The St, Louis Battlehawks against the Seattle Sea Dragons at Lumen Field on February 23rd, 2023 in Seattle, WA.
(© Maddy Grassy/XFL)

The Battlehawks open the season at the Michigan Panthers on Saturday afternoon and McCarron’s goals are the same, plus one: Leave a legacy that establishes spring football on permanent footing.

“I’ve told (UFL President) Russ Brandon, I’ve told Ms. Danny (Garcia) – I love them to death, that’s the people I’ve spent the most time around. I’m here for them and to help grow the league,” McCarron told the media on Tuesday.

“I’d love to be part of this league even after I’m done playing – whether it’s coming back and coaching here (in St. Louis). If A.B. (head coach Anthony Becht) wants to retire or take another job, I’d like to be the head coach here. But I want to be part of this league and help it grow.”

The other major sports have minor developmental leagues but there is a gaping void between football’s professional and amateur ranks. McCarron says that’s why the UFL must succeed.

“The NFL needs it more than anything,” he said. “They’re cutting down preseason games, right? The league is eventually going to 18 regular season games in the NFL, they’re going to cut it down to two preseason games. It’s not enough time to really see guys.”

“Whether the NFL teams up with the UFL and there’s some type of NBA G-League type concept where each (UFL) team is affiliated a certain NFL team, or 2-3 NFL teams have a (draft) pick from a certain UFL team – I think there needs to be some type of minor league concept.”

McCarron and his teammates can give the UFL’s long-term hopes a boost by thriving in the league’s most cherished market. St. Louis is expected to lead the way in attendance and TV ratings and the Dome will host the league’s championship game on June 16.

The Michigan Panthers pose the first test for the Battlehawks’ offense that returns most of its weapons from a season ago.

“(The Panthers) are a talented group on defense, they have the USFL Defensive Player of the Year at linebacker (Frank Ginda). They are big up front, good secondary. You really have to adjust on the fly as the game goes on to what they’re doing,” McCarron said.

Kickoff from Ford Field in Detroit is Saturday at 3 p.m. on Fox.

Andy Carroll

Andy Carroll

Andy Carroll is a freelance sports writer living in the Ozarks with his wife and four great kids. He loves St. Louis, toasted ravioli and minor league baseball. You can follow him on Twitter @carroll_sgf and Instagram @andycarroll505